Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS Recap: Weeks 1-3

Hello!  I am Charles Northrop, and together with Daniel Chiritoiu we are the GIS Consuls for Lent Term 2014!  We must offer our apologies: it has been a while without a GIS update.  However, after resolving some technical difficulties, we’re ready to resume our updates!  So far, the graduate community at the Faculty of Classics has seen a wide variety of pretty exciting papers that explored our field from different angles.  Let’s have a little re-cap:

To kick off the term in Week 1 (January 17th), Fran Middleton led us in a round-table discussion about athetesis, excision and digital editions.  We talked about the identity of a text, how editions affect that identity, and the ways in which digital editions will change the relationships that students, educators and researchers have with the texts they study.  We had a great discussion that continued all the way down to the Granta.

In Week 2 (January 24th), Annie Burman and Lucy Edwards each introduced the seminar to interesting topics that many of us had probably not encountered before.  First, Annie gave us a history lesson about classicists as cryptanalysts (code breakers) at Bletchley Park.  During the interwar period and the beginning of the Second World War, British intelligence showed a preference for classicists, mostly from Cambridge and Oxford, for cryptanalytic work.  Dilly Knox, H.M. Chadwick, and L.P. Wilkinson, among others all worked to crack Axis codes during the war, even while continuing their research in the classics.  Classicists, being trained from a young age to decipher obscure texts by filling in gaps based on context and general knowledge, were adept at breaking man-made codes.  Although the war saw the arrival of machine codes, such as the German Enigma, which ultimately led to mathematicians supplanting classicists as the star cryptanalysts, Annie’s talk highlighted the versatility and importance of classics at a time when the Allied Nations were in desperate need.  After Annie, Lucy led us in an enlightening survey of both medical and non-medical literature pertaining to trans* and intersex bodies in the classical world.  She argued that transmisogyny, although often considered a modern phenomenon, existed in the ancient world.  Quoting scientific scholars such as Soranus and Pliny, along with literary examples from Ovid and others, she showed that negative attitudes were prevalent towards effeminate men in ancient Mediterranean Society.  Authors of myth praised characters who transitioned from female to male, but derided those who went from male to female as victims or sinners being punished.  At the same time, ‘intersex’ babies (I use quotes because it is unclear what ‘intersex’ meant in the ancient understanding) were ill-omened, and had to be destroyed, usually alongside sacrifices and rituals to appease the gods.  Lucy concluded that transmisogyny did exist in the ancient world, and that while ancient authors were intrigued enough to play with the taboo of sex change in myth, ancient culture was horrified by the perceived trespass of boundaries in intersex bodies.  While the discussion raised the question of whether ‘transmisogyny’ was the correct term for this attitude, or if a more nuanced approach is necessary, her paper raised important issues of gender representation and attitudes to sex change in the ancient world.  Both topics gave us a lot to discuss both in the seminar and when we adjourned for delicious pizza and drinks at the Red Bull.

We had a small but dedicated group join us in Week 3 (January 31st), just this past Friday, for papers from Daniel Anderson and Stephen Harrison.  Daniel presented us with some work from his Master’s thesis, which he is currently revising for publication.  He suggested that Hellenistic epigrams were composed with the knowledge that they would have their order rearranged when published in a collection.  To demonstrate this fact, and what it means for reading epigraphic compilations, he discussed Meleager’s coronis (AP 12.257 = HE 4722ff.).  He said that, despite papyrological marking indicating intentions of organisation, analysis of the text could demonstrate that the coronis was moveable.  He pointed to the use in the AP of Meleager’s coronis as a ‘parchment tag’, a kind of dangling piece of writing that helped readers jump to certain sections of the anthology.  This meant that the coronis could be inserted not only at the end of a book, but also the transition between sections.  Furthermore, Daniel explained, it is likely that when the coronis would lose its context by being moved, its contextual significance could be continually re-created.  Daniel admitted that his position was “radical”, but nevertheless believes that his theory explains the flexibility of the coronis and the strategy used in the composition of epigrams.  Judging by the favourable reception of his paper at the GIS, we can await his eventual publication with high expectations.  Stephen’s presentation also proposed a reinterpretation of scholarly notions, exploring the use of trappings and customs of the Achaemenid kings in Alexander the Great’s court.  Many Macedonians during the reign of Alexander were shocked by the change from a ‘primus-inter-pares’ type of rule, favoured by Philip II, to a more aloof kingship of the kind often associated with the conquered Persian kings.  Stephen argued that Alexander, instead of purposefully adopting elements of the excessively hierarchical Achaemenid style after his conquest, fell into a habit of using their trappings for both cultural and utilitarian reasons.  On the one hand, Alexander needed to communicate with his new Persian subjects and establish a regime that would not cause them a drastic culture shock and undermine his authority.  On the other hand, as a itinerate ruler, he needed to use palaces and furniture that were already in place when he arrived at cities around his empire.  Stephen pointed to differences in construction and layout of Macedonian and Persian palace, which were each designed for a certain style of rule: the Macedonians preferred ground-level palaces that provided easy access for subjects who wanted audiences with the monarch, while the Persians built their palaces high, to reflect the high status of the king.  Whatever his reasons, historians agree that Alexander eventually became aloof by the end of his reign, placing a large body of guards, and even walls around his tent on campaign, and dining on golden couches while in his palaces.  This style facilitated his role as a ruler of many oriental peoples, but alienated his Macedonian warriors.  Stephen emphasised that he believes that the legacy of the Achaemenids was not just adopted, but adapted ad hoc to fit Alexander’s needs as he pushed eastward.  Once again, our discussions continued all the way to the Granta.

We are looking forward to this coming week’s GIS (Friday, 7 February @ 17:15), when we will have a triple bill: Robert Walling-Wefelmeyer with “Ideology and Identity: Sparta’s Other Soldiers”; George Watson with “How do we know what the gods looked like?”; and Matt Scarborough with a presentation and Q&A on “PhD exchanges on the ERASMUS scheme”.


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